Natalie Goldberg's word-of-mouth hit has sold well over half a million copies. Goldberg, who has conducted writing workshops for both beginners and professionals all over the United States, sees writing as a practice that helps us comprehend the value of our lives. With insight, humor, and practicality, she inspires writers and would-be writers alike to take the leap into writing creatively and well.
One quote, in an interview at the back of the expanded edition, really spoke to me. Goldberg said, "Daily life is very seductive. Weeks go by and we forget who we are." That happens to me all the time. So, since I started the book, I've tried to take at least ten minutes a day to write and focus. And I've tried to pay more attention to daily life so that I have something to write about.
I am the worst sort of wanna-be writer. I love to read about writing but rarely actually do it. This book is written in such an active yet inviting style that almost everyone who reads it ends up participating.
The exercises can be done in any order and changed to fit your style or mood. I highly recommend it for anyone who writes anything -- journals, web pages, poetry, or short stories. It's that good!
Thanks for writing this book. Nowadays I have dreams about the sagging wooden cottage I was living in some 20+ years ago, the period in which I first read your book, dreams in which the ‘possums and ‘coons and snakes living underneath it crawl up and take it over. In those days I slept on the floor, worked in an Indy bookstore, helped out with local progressive politics and AIDS activism, ran and cycled long distances, and if I had needed to I would have found a few other intense activities to keep me from doing what I needed to do, which was to finish my dissertation. Your writing was clunky but humble and cheerful. It reminded me of the local food coop, where food was more expensive and tasted worse than the grocery store products, at least if you fed a steady sugar addiction as I did, but was tirelessly wholesome. I opted for the A&P, sorry Natalie, for cheap sugary peanut butter and breakfast cereal. But for writing, yeah, for writing I had developed a taste in the bookstore for the good stuff. The problem was (no surprise here), it was hard and I often stumbled. Natalie, your unusual combination of mysticism and common sense appealed to me even when I cringed sometimes at your own writing, particularly as “self indulgence” is a major crime for academic writers. But I learned to sit through the squirmy feeling and stay with you, and in doing that I learned also not to flinch prematurely from my own efforts. The dissertation got written. It was not poetry, Natalie, not that great a read at all, but it got written. Thanks for that.
A humbled reader
More so than any other book this is the one I recommend to anyone who is a writer. Though it was written long before blogging, the exercises in here would add richly to many personal bloggers. Anyone who is a writer will find inspiration for the practice of writing from this book.
And by "practice" Natalie Goldberg means in the Zen sense of the word - as an ongoing way of life, a daily activity, a form of meditation.
I try to reread this once a year, at least, when I haven't been writing (or when what I have been writing has been diluted and far from what I really want to be writing).
And DO IT
The full title of the book is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. That sums up the book very well. Goldberg draws heavily on her Buddhist faith (mixed with her Jewish background) to show how mindlessness and freedom help a writer to actually write. Discipline is part of this freedom. She encourages the reader to write everyday and pull inspiration from common objects, and to keep writing even when everything seems like complete drivel.
I've read several books on this subject. Writing Down the Bones may have been the first of this sort in the mid-'80s, but there are several other more recent books I feel I connected with more strongly - Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and The Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook. I loved how Goldberg connected the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism with writing, and I really wish that could have been more prevalent. In all, it's a good book, and one with hundreds of inspirational quotes for writers... but it's not necessarily the best available.
What am I going to write? How am I going to write? If these are your questions or if you often find yourself staring down a blank piece of paper and the paper winning, then Natalie Goldberg’s book, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, is for you. Of course there are thousands of other reasons for reading this book; any writer will benefit from it.
Goldberg is the master of no stopping, no editing, no fear writing. Listening to the book-on-tape version, I felt I sat at her feet while she read her work and she stopped to comment on it from time to time. She giggles and chuckles while she relates stories on her writing practice. She encourages you to write in a notebook, try different locations, meet with a friend for a writing session, and to write whatever comes to mind. She helps you find your creative center.
The six cassettes, nine hours of play time, I found to be a delight. I found myself smiling and eager to write.
This is one of those books that people just assume you've read when you have an MFA in writing. I had heard quite a bit about it, but I hadn't actually read it until now. But since this book has clearly been highly praised and circulated within the writing community since the 1980s, it's no surprise that I've come across so much of Goldberg's sage advice throughout the years.
The problem with a book like this is that I have heard it all before. It's a testament to what Goldberg had to say on the subject of writing, but my mind was certainly not blown by reading this. And so I'm not sure if my overall lack of love for this book is indicative of an overpraised lackluster book, or a wonderfully brilliant book that has been dulled by its successors. Frankly, I think it is both.
Some of Goldberg's ideas are golden. She's very much into the “let go” mentality of writing. She has really great advice for how to achieve this. Many of her thoughts on mindfulness are the words I have heard and appreciated over and again. But when you look at the whole of this book, you find that that really is the summation of the author's advice. Sure, she has a small exercise here and a tidbit of non-zen based advice there, but so much of this book is about writing mindfully. Writing mindfully is exactly what I need, but reading this book thirty-two years after its original publication, it is mostly stuff I've heard before.
Writing Down the Bones is excellent for the beginning writer or the writer who wants to approach their work more naturally. It should probably be required reading in undergrad writing programs. But for a broader, more modern perspective of the writing craft or for solid inspiration, I'd look elsewhere. Personally, I loved McCann's Letters to a Young Writer. It's a slim volume and McCann surely will not teach you “everything you need to know about writing” or even come close to doing so, but it features a great mix of topics that are 100% inspiring (though many of those ideas were probably inspired by Goldberg's book).